I began seriously learning Mandarin Chinese, also called putonghua (普通话) in 2010, when my family and I moved from our little corner of the world in California to the big, bustling atmosphere of Xi’an (西安), China.
Rather than the Roman alphabet used in most European languages, Chinese employs characters, called hanzi (汉字), in a logographic script, where symbols, not individual letters, represent sounds. Here, I do not seek to instruct you in the ways of hanzi, but rather to introduce you to its rich history and meaning.
Sparse historical records shroud the origin of Chinese characters in mystery. Based just on artifacts, most historians agree that Chinese characters first “officially” appeared on the scene in the Shang dynasty, which lasted from 1600 B.C. to 1000 B.C., in the court records of Cang Jie (仓颉), a minister to Emperor Huang Di’s (黄帝).
After that initial creation, inscriptions on oracle bone or jiaguwen (甲骨文), changes in the organization of China and its courts demanded changes in the written system. During the Shang Dynasty and the Zhou Dynasty that followed, scribes wrote on bronze. When Emperor Qin Shi Huang (秦始皇) gained the throne in the third century B.C. after the divisive Warring States Period and unified the nation, he commissioned the simplification and unification of the written language, resulting in small seal characters.
In the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), characters began to take forms more familiar to those in use today. This evolution, called official script or traditional characters, fully developed in the regular script of the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907). The 1950s and ‘60s ushered simplified characters into the written language, a form promoted to increase literacy. In simplified characters, the history of the Chinese written language ends.
During the Han Dynasty, scholar Xu Shen (许慎) created determinative-phonetic characters (形声字), which combined pictograms for meaning with phonetics for pronunciation. The character for plum, 梅, for one, has two parts: tree (木)and every ( 每). The first component clarifies its meaning: this character relates to a tree or plant life. The second component, měi in Mandarin, denotes the pronunciation of the word. Altogether, the character for plum says méi.
Next, some characters are huì yì （会意）, or combined ideographs. Combined ideograms form from the combination of two or more ideograms. Take the character for peace, 安. This character is made by placing the ideogram for woman (女）under that for roof （宀）, meaning that a man achieves peace when he has a wife under his roof.
The final type of character, called loan characters （假借）, comes from using a form of an existing character for a homophonous word that does not have a character yet. The characters for 来 and 莱 present a perfect example. They share a pronunciation – lái – but not a meaning. The first means “to come”; the second, “cereal.” The latter existed before the former. For lack of better options, language developers took the character for the similar-sounding 莱, removed the top, and made it the character for “to come.”
A Reflection of Changing Culture
In addition to the evolution of the character forms themselves, individual characters have changed. My favorite example is the character for woman. Originally, the ideogram depicted a bowing or kneeling figure. The current form, 女, illustrates a figure taking long strides, symbolic of the long strides women have taken to reach equal ground with men.
Another example, 友 for friend, began as two hands stretched in the same direction to signify cooperation. Over time, the hands turned to clasp one another in friendship, which eventually simplified into the current character.